By Aishwarya Mohapatra
Edited by Liz Maria Kuriakose
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has certainly set the tone of the newly elected government’s foreign policy by choosing Bhutan to be his first foreign destination three weeks after assuming charge: the focus is on improving ties with neighbouring countries and also to check China’s expanding influence in the sub – continent.
Modi’s visit to Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital, began on Sunday cementing “India’s unique and special relationship” with this neighbouring country. He was received by the Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay at the Paro airport and received a ceremonial guard of honour. Modi, on his arrival, declared to expand bilateral ties he termed as “Bharat to Bhutan” (B2B) relations. The Indian PM also inaugurated the new Supreme Court building in Hejo, which was constructed with funding from the Indian government.
The move underlines the emphasis of the Modi-led BJP government on its vow of ending the neglect of neighbour-relations, which occurred under the UPA government. Only last month, Modi invited all regional leaders to his inauguration.
China has steadily built its sway in South Asia. It is strategically building a “String of Pearls” in the Indian Ocean, a term that originated in a 2005 US study by defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, for the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities in neighbouring countries. The two largest projects are a Chinese financed commercial shipping center in Hambantota, Sri Lanka and a Chinese controlled deep water port in Gwadar, Pakistan. Similar port construction projects are also underway in Myanmar (Sittwe port) and Bangladesh (Chittagong port).
China re-branded its initiatives last year as a “maritime silk road” (MSR), a call to ASEAN countries for building ports and infrastructure for better trade relations. The concept has parallels to the “New Silk Route”, running westward from China through Central Asian states. The MSR plays up the country’s historical dominant roots and the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s favourite theme of “National Rejuvenation”. China recently extended the invitation for building the MSR to Bangladesh, while Sri Lanka, a country so far west, has also extended its official backing for the project. This causes significant worry for Indian authorities due to the belief of “getting encircled”, as both initiatives mean China building ports all the way from South China Sea to the Arabian Sea. Even if the MSR is exclusively an economic strategy, it will have strategic implications. China largely relies on paramilitary or civilian vessels to stake claim in disputed maritime regions, and doesn’t need to send its navy to control regional shipping routes.
China has also shown that it can use economic investments and influence as effectively as a Brahmastra for expanding strategic influence. Nepal, a country with historically deep religious and ethnic ties with India, now has better relations with China. China overtook India this January to be the largest contributor of FDI in the first six months of the fiscal year, underlining the rising Chinese economic and strategic influence in Nepal.
In the context of China’s growing influence in the region which has taken place at the same time as the slowdown of the Indian economy, policy paralysis and loss of confidence in the UPA government, the newly elected PM Modi has wasted no time in cementing India’s ties with its closest allies. Bhutan is India’s only “all-weather” ally in a region where China is making significant inroads.
In his first visit to this Himalayan kingdom wedged between India and China, Modi has called for greater economic ties and a more responsive Indian financial assistance to Bhutan, a country with which India has a relationship “forged by ties of geography, history and culture”. This goes hand-in-hand with the new government’s decisions for increased economic investment in South Asian and African countries to combat China’s influence.
Talks will focus on ties over Bhutan’s hydropower plants, which supply much – needed clean energy to India. Electricity to India is Bhutan’s single largest export, and New Delhi is interested to further the relationship.
However, Thimpu is keen to use the impending 22nd round of bilateral talks in July or August between Bhutan and China to have a better relationship with Beijing. The talks began in 1986 to resolve the long-pending border dispute between the two nations. The northern borders of Bhutan, which are disputed by China has three portions: East, West and Central. To the West is the area bordering Sikkim and to the East is the area bordering Arunachal Pradesh. Thimpu may give this up to Beijing for a settlement in the central region of the border with China – it is this prospect that worries New Delhi, as such a move would allow China to dominate the Siliguri corridor or Tawang, regions of interest to India.
Beijing’s wariness over Modi’s visit shows through the foreign ministry’s neutral comments on the PM’s visit to Bhutan. Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokesperson, told a regular press briefing on Monday, “With regard to China’s relations with Bhutan, we have not established diplomatic relations but our two countries maintain friendly exchanges and visits.” Hua added that China was “willing to develop good neighbourly relations” with Bhutan, the only country in a region it has no diplomatic ties with.
The state – run Xinhua reported Hua’s reply to a query if Beijing saw Modi’s visit as a move to contain China: “We are paying attention to the Indian Prime Minister’s visit. We are glad to see our neighbours develop friendly ties with each other.”
Modi faces the task to win over a strong ally while impressing upon Bhutan that New Delhi would not accept any trade – off that may be adverse to Indian interests.
As P D Rai, a Member of Parliament of Sikkim, puts it, “Although India would like to have a greater say in South Asian matters beyond trade, so far we have not been able to exercise substantial political clout. Modi’s first visit to Bhutan will have to be looked at in this light.”
The much hoped-for success of this visit would be the first of many moves that Modi is seen to be taking to constitute an offensive to check the growing Sino – influence in the region.Aishwarya is a Graduate in Manufacturing Science and Engineering from IIT Kharagpur. She is a hardcore rebel through and through, and loves taking the not-much-thought-of side of things. Her philosophy is “A good laugh a day keeps the doctor away.” A keen lover of books, she writes – whether it is logical prose or irrational poetry. She is passionate about theology, spirituality and women’s rights. She likes meeting new people and learning about new cultures. She can be reached at her email ([email protected]) or her blog ([email protected])